Tuesday Toss: Week 15

July 16, 2019
By Evan Lepler

In 26 days, we will crown a new AUDL champion, and unless Dallas or Toronto can catch lightning in a bottle in an unfamiliar underdog role, the 2019 survivor will experience the glory for the very first time.

The Madison Radicals, victors a season ago and participants in each of the past six Championship Weekends, are perplexingly absent from the 10-team postseason tournament, despite a season-long point-differential that ranks sixth-best in the league. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Radicals absolutely pounded Detroit by 24 goals in their season finale on Sunday, slightly skewing the numbers with the most lopsided result anyone enjoyed all season long.) Still, with Madison preparing for 2020 and no Bay Area contender in the mix to compete in the upcoming San Jose-hosted final four, the door is wide open for a new franchise to craft their own special legacy. 

As the playoffs launch, the New York Empire and Raleigh Flyers sit as the two clear favorites to compete on Sunday, August 11, though neither is a lock to escape July, considering the historic struggles each has had with the teams currently standing in their way. Recently, the Empire and Flyers have each won two straight against Toronto and Dallas, respectively, but the Rush and Roughnecks were a combined 24-2 against the New York and Raleigh before the boomeranging two-game streaks. The Empire may also have to tangle with a DC team that very nearly beat them on three separate occasions this year. Home-field advantage will certainly help, but history indicates, especially with New York and Raleigh, that success is far from assured. 

Beyond that quintet in the East and South, the other five playoff participants are all interesting and imperfect. Out West, San Diego and Los Angeles will clash this Saturday night to determine the first semifinal qualifier in a matchup that looks mighty juicy and relatively even on paper. The Growlers have the 3-1 regular season edge, but the Aviators have been better lately, including a victory in San Diego in the most recent matchup on June 15. In the Midwest, who the heck knows? Indy and Chicago, the top two teams entering Week 15, both lost at home this past weekend, albeit with shorthanded rosters that reflected their status as having already clinched postseason spots. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, winners of eight of their last nine games and owners of the top overall point differential in the Midwest, will try to maintain their groove all the way to San Jose. 

After 15 weeks and 126 regular season games—an amazing 73 percent of which were decided by five goals or fewer—the 21-team AUDL has been whittled down to 10 remaining competitors, all of whom are trying to envision themselves hoisting the trophy three weeks from Sunday. 

The playoffs are here, Championship Weekend feels imminent, and the upcoming ultimate, full of desperation and intensity, should be wonderful to watch. 

The Full-Field Layout

When Pittsburgh absolutely pummeled Chicago on Saturday night, it rendered the rest of the Week 15 action meaningless from a postseason standpoint. But there were surprisingly still plenty of noteworthy storylines from the six-game weekend, including three more one-goal games, a unique farewell timeout with 37 seconds left in a Breese Stevens blowout, and all of Pittsburgh’s pieces gelling perfectly for the Thunderbirds dominant display.

While the Chicago Wildfire and Indianapolis AlleyCats were both missing marquee talent and already ensured of their postseason status, the final results were still striking. Combined, it was Pittsburgh 54, Thunderbirds opponents 33. 

“I was not expecting this,” admitted Pittsburgh Co-Captain Jimmy Towle, following Saturday’s  29-16 stomping of Chicago. “[I was most pleased by] how much of a full team win it was. We have a D-1 line and a D-2 line; I think our first break of the game from the D-2 line. Seeing the back-to-back breaks from both lines and how deep this team is and how we can perform, that was amazing.”

The Thunderbirds used a 7-0 run in the third quarter to transform a throughly impressive 15-9 lead into a bonkers 22-9 beatdown, a mesmerizing turnaround for a Pittsburgh team that nearly suffered a loss against winless Detroit the previous week. Five breaks in the first quarter set the tone, and the Birds’ O-line went unbroken the entire night, ensuring that Chicago will have to travel to Pittsburgh for the Midwest semifinals this Saturday.

“We had an issue in the first quarter with throwing and catching,” commented a disappointed Dave Woods, whose Wildfire finished the regular season 7-5 in his first year as head coach. “It’s tough to be successful when you cannot execute basic fundamentals of frisbee. We were missing some key players on offense, and I think that was very apparent. Some guys that are used to playing secondary roles had to step up and play primary roles, and timing was off, execution was off.”

The Wildfire were indeed missing several of their studs, including offensive weapons like Michael Pardo, Nate Goff, Jeff Weis, and Zane Rankin. They were also without the dynamic Matt Rehder, who played O-line earlier in the year before recording five blocks in his first game on D-line in late June. While Weis is in Germany with the USA U-24 National team and consequently will miss Saturday’s rematch in Pittsburgh, the other four marquee names are expected back, a dynamic that will drastically change the nature of the upcoming battle.

“Those are names that are difference-makers on the Wildfire, absolutely,” stated Towle, who completed all 14 of his throws in the Thunderbirds’ 13-goal win. “I think we’re gonna still continue to play the way that we play, but we can’t get overconfident in our performance tonight. We’re gonna have to lock back in and take things seriously despite how much of a blowout [Saturday] was.”

Max Sheppard and Thomas Edmonds dazzled all weekend for Pittsburgh, as the former racked up 15 goals and 12 assists across the two games and the latter accumulated eight goals, seven assists, and went 77-for-78 distributing the disc. The spectacular efforts, which they often made look pretty easy, substantially boosted their season-long plus/minuses; Sheppard’s +93 finished second-best in the league behind Montreal’s Quentin Bonneau, while Edmonds ranked T-13th in the AUDL at +53. 

“I feel like we’re similar players,” replied Edmonds, when asked how he and Sheppard had developed such strong chemistry on the field together. “We know what each other wants.”

Slowing down that duo will be crucial for the Wildfire on Saturday in Pittsburgh, considering they combined for 12 goals dishing to each other in this past weekend’s doubleheader sweep. For the season, 22 of Edmonds’ 41 assists have gone to Sheppard, with no more than five finding any other Thunderbird player.

“We’ll watch the film, for sure,” said Woods, when asked whether or or not he’d even bother studying the frustrating footage from Saturday’s rout. “They showed us a heckuva game, so if anything we’ll get some good film to study for them. Ultimately, we’re gonna have to try and look past this game and focus on what we need to do next week. Hopefully, everyone can have a short memory and a long postseason…Pittsburgh will have some confidence, I think, coming off of this game. However, they are gonna see a much different Wildfire roster next week. We should have almost full availability and firing power for next week.”

Though Indianapolis saw its four-game winning streak come to an end on Sunday thanks to Pittsburgh’s 25-17 triumph, the AlleyCats have the luxury of relaxing until July 27, when the Wildfire/Thunderbirds survivor hits the road to Indy. 

“Can’t wait to see who it’s going to be against,” AlleyCats Head Coach Eric Leonard said last week.

Just like the regular season, the Midwest’s playoff picture appears more wide open and mysterious than any other quadrant in the league. Whoever prevails, it will be the first time ever in the modern AUDL—in other words, not counting 2012—that Indy, Pittsburgh, or Chicago will be the last team standing in their division. 

*****

With 37 seconds left and Madison up by 24 goals in the finale of a disappointing season, Radicals Head Coach Tim DeByl called timeout. It was intended not to further demoralize disgraced Detroit; rather, it was meant to salute a seven-year stalwart whose Madison ultimate career was coming to an end. 

“I think someone said we should score quick to let Pat [Shriwise] get one more point, [but it] didn’t seem like the crowd would really get it if he was just out there on a D-line,” explained DeByl. “So we called timeout and our PA announcer saw me grab Pat and throw him out there, so he caught on and asked for the fans to give him some cheers in his last point. It was pretty emotional.”

As the 2019 Radicals season tumbled toward mediocrity in an unprecedented fashion, it became evident that some major roster changes were imminent. But, actually, many of these moves were predetermined even before Madison endured six losses in eight games in the middle of the season, costing them a chance to defend their championship in the playoffs. Now, with several of the veteran Radicals planning to move on, the franchise will look to reinvent itself heading toward 2020. But not without first reflecting on some of the anchors that have helped Madison win 92 games since 2013. 

“My emotions toward Pat, Ben [Nelson], and Dave [Wiseman] leaving are myriad,” said Radicals Captain Kevin Pettit-Scantling, when asked about the three original Radicals whose departures from the team are anticipated. “I’ve agonized over the loss of their presence at practice, in GroupMe and Slack channels, at games, and in my head pushing me to be better. They are all older than me, and far better at this sport, so they’ve naturally fallen into a mentor role. Being 21 [in 2013] and having these guys to look up to meant everything to me.”

Pettit-Scantling continued his ode to Shriwise, Nelson, and Wiseman, the latter two having also played their last games as Radicals as well in previous weeks.

“I’m more clever with my blades thanks to Ben,” he added. “I understand cross-field looks because of Dave. I model my throwing stance and flicks off of Pat. Mostly, they’ve taught me maturity. Ben is so pragmatic that it’s hard to even argue with him when he’s made a point. Pat is absolutely tiltable but not in the ‘I’m going to fight you’ mentality. He’s going to run you up and down the field if you try to get in his head. I remember heckling him once at practice and got a stink eye from across the field that made me flinch. Dave has been my spiritual partner through the Radical heartbreaks and ensuing triumphs…These guys have given so much time and commitment to this team. Watching Pat play his last game this season could only have been better if he had gone downfield for the final second huck like I had been screaming at him to do from the sideline and skied everyone. I’ll continue to give him flack about that.”

Surely, a non-competitive 33-9 regular season win over the minor league Mechanix is not how any of these Madison vets envisioned their Radicals’ careers ending, but the reality is that much of Madison’s core will be back next year. 

“We only had one active player [Shriwise] on Sunday that won’t be back,” said DeByl. 

In the meantime, Madison will watch the playoffs from afar for the first time ever and wonder what could have been. Frustration lingers over all of their losses, especially the Indy game where they led 7-2 in the opening quarter on June 1 and the Pittsburgh game three weeks later  where they had the disc with a chance to win before falling 21-20 in overtime. Flip those two results and the Rads are getting ready to host another Midwest title game. As it actually stands, their season is over earlier than ever, giving returning leadership plenty of time to plot the 2020 revenge tour.

New plans are already in the works.

******

A lack of postseason consequence did not stop the Philadelphia Phoenix from engaging in two highly competitive contests on their season-ending doubleheader road swing through Ottawa and Montreal. In both games, fans were treated to high energy, down-to-the-wire entertainment, with the Phoenix experiencing their only two one-goal games of the 2019 season.

“Saturday’s game was a tough battle for us,” remarked Phoenix GM and player Mike Arcata. “It was a windy game and Ottawa’s throwers proved they could continue to take accurate shots in those conditions. On the final point, we needed a break to tie with about 50 seconds left. We got an immediate short-field block, but unfortunately squandered the goal line attempt. After a second D, we had about 10 seconds to move the length of the field and score. Obviously, that point didn’t go our way, but when you feel you’ve underperformed as a team through a game like that, the bets you could ask for is an opportunity to force overtime, and we at least gave ourselves two shots to do so.”

The frantic final point concluded with Ottawa’s Jeremy Hill blocking down Philly’s last prayer in the end zone, giving the Outlaws the 20-19 win, a pretty sweet way to wrap up what otherwise was a disappointing 2019 season. 

“All of us were pretty excited to close out the season this way,” commented Alec Arsenault, who led the Outlaws at +10 with five assists, four goals, and one block (with no turnovers). “We’ve let a few games slip through the cracks so it was nice to finish the season with at least one victory in regulation…I think I can speak for the team that this season was a little bittersweet. We competed against some of the best teams in the league, but weren’t able to hang on long enough to squeeze out the wins required to make playoffs. There’s a lot to work on this offseason, but I think we showed that we have a roster talented enough to compete.”

Both Philly and Ottawa went to sleep Saturday night with just three wins on the season, but the Phoenix had one more game to play, and Sunday’s finish in Montreal would be even more tantalizing than the previous day’s four-turn final point. 

Trailing by one in the last minute against Montreal, the Phoenix calmly worked the disc down into the red zone, patiently waiting for an open look to open up. As the final seconds ticked down, Dustin Damiano saw Connor Boyle free in the back right corner of the end zone, and his flick landed smoothly in Boyle’s grasp as time expired, prolonging each team’s season by at least five minutes.

Each team made mistakes in the extra period, but managed to secure offensive holds that left the game at 20-all heading into double OT, as James Pollard blocked Montreal’s buzzer-beating prayer to create one more point. Philly received, and four throws later, the Phoenix punctuated their weekend with a dramatic universe point victory, spoiling the Royal’s regular season finale for their home fans. 

“I was a little surprised with how [that final point] unfolded,” recalled Arcata, who snagged the game-winner to give Philly the 21-20 double OT triumph. “We completed a string of in-cuts and I had space to push deep from the back. I was expecting to turn under for another in-cut, but I guess Greg Martin saw the space, liked the throw, and put it. As I made the catch, I saw I was near the goal line, so instead of just landing, I tucked my feet and rolled to make first contact in the end zone. When I came up and saw the ref signal, I was obviously pumped up. All our players were extremely excited to clinch our final game in double OT, and there was a lot of celebration on the field.”

Philly’s win put them at 4-8 for the year, tied with Montreal for fourth in the East, a game ahead of Ottawa, who finished at 3-9. All three of these franchises showed signs of growth throughout the campaign, each recording at least one win against a team that made the playoffs, but consistency, or lack thereof, prevented their seasons from going beyond 12 games

“Over the second half of the 2019 season, we showed a lot what the future holds for [the Phoenix],” commented Arcata. “In every game since the All-Star break, we’ve put ourselves in a winning position. We’ve pulled off some great victories and learned a lot from those games and from our losses. On the way up to Ottawa, there was an amusing conversation in which some players realized that I, at 26 years old, was the fourth oldest player on the entire roster. That fact alone is promising for future Phoenix seasons, and combined with the performance of this team and those young players, should have the league watching out for us in 2020.”

******

Though the actual game was not quite as close as the 25-24 final score indicated, the Tampa Bay Cannons again represented themselves fairly well against the first-place Raleigh Flyers, who rose to 10-2 despite the narrow margin. In the three regular season meetings against the Cannons, the Flyers went 3-0, but only eight goals separated the two teams across the three affairs.

“There were no playoff implications with the result of the game, but it felt like there were,” commented Ryan Chard, who paced the Cannons with five goals, two assists, and three blocks. “Even though they have obviously gotten the better of us the past few years, we usually always have interesting matchups. One thing that stood out to me in the game was the way Bobby Ley has integrated himself in Raleigh. That was the second time I watched him play live, with Raleigh of course, and I have been surprised by how heavily they are relying on him. Maybe I wouldn’t be surprised because I know he’s an incredible player, but [Raleigh Head Coach Mike] Denardis runs a tight ship up there. Either way, he seems to have earned the trust of the team very quickly.”

The Flyers started fast on Saturday night, scoring the first three goals of the game and soaring to a 14-10 halftime lead. Up 25-21 with a few minutes left, Raleigh surrendered the last three goals, inching Tampa within one, but the Cannons final score came with just one second left, not nearly enough time for a true equalizing opportunity. 

“The game against Tampa was certainly closer than we would have liked going in,” remarked Jacob Fairfax, whose +8 led the Flyers in the contest. “I think the biggest thing that allowed us to hang on to the win was just our defensive unit. They rattled off a few breaks early and didn’t waiver after the O-line gave away our lead. J.D. Hastings, Josh Hartzog, and Chuck Cantone all did a great job moving the disc off of a turn to help punch in some breaks.”

Though Ley led Raleigh with 28 completions, he finished with a negative plus/minus for the first time this season, a result of four throwaways. Fairfax paced the Flyers with six assists and two goals, completing all 13 of his throws, while Allan Laviolette worked around his own four turnovers to tally five goals and four assists for a Raleigh roster that was playing without regulars like Henry Fisher, Mischa Freystaetter, Eric Taylor, and David Richardson

But like they have done all season long, the Flyers found success thanks to their depth of talent, along with established stars finding new ways to make an impact. As the Week 15 Honor Roll pointed out, Fairfax finished the 2019 season with 39 assists and 30 goals, a significant contrast to his past two years when he recorded 19 assists and 84 goals.

“Coach [David] Allison has certainly pushed me to take on a bigger role and my teammates have encouraged me a lot in my growth,” explained Fairfax. “I used to be afraid of throwing turnovers and that impacted my decision-making on the field. I think something Nutt [aka Jonathan Nethercutt] said to me in a preseason practice helped me change my mindset as a thrower. I essentially challenged him to a distance throwing competition, and although I lost, I think he noticed that there was more to my game than I was showing. He asked me why I never take shots in games, and I think responded by saying that it just wasn’t my job. To that he said, ‘why not?’ I am not sure how much intent he had behind our conversation, but I took him to mean that there was no reason that I should not be responsible for that type of offensive production. So with my teammates and coaches pushing me to expand my game, I started to take more shots this year. It certainly helps having great downfield targets like Terrence [Mitchell], Henry, and Mischa, so I get bailed out even when I make mistakes.”

As a team, allowing the last three goals of the game prevented the Flyers from possessing the best league-wide point differential into the playoffs—Raleigh finished +42 for the year, third behind Los Angeles and New York, both +43—but the Flyers still look mighty strong as they get set to host Dallas on July 2, looking to end the Roughnecks’ three-year reign as the South’s Championship Weekend qualifier.

The Outside-In

In case you missed it, the AUDL announced the creation of a new Integrity Award last week, when the nominees—one per team—were unveiled. This is an excellent idea that should shine line on the continued sportsmanship that is widely displayed each and every week around the league.

The Greatest (Ultimate-Related Social Media Post of the Week)

It was especially cool to see the reactions from various nominees and their teammates on social media around the league in response to the Integrity Award announcement. Dallas’s Griffin Miller may have had the most amusing post of the bunch.

Miller has a chance to get revenge against Mitchell a week from Saturday in Raleigh. 

Traveling Tales

Booking hotels as often as I do, I have learned that typically reasonably-priced rooms are readily available in the days leading up to a weekend journey. But when I looked yesterday to make accommodations for this Saturday’s excursion to San Diego, I had an abrupt realization when I saw the outrageous prices accompanying all local establishments. Obviously, San Diego is a more expensive place than many other cities we travel to, but the landscape now is absurdly expensive! 

Why is this the case?

Apparently, the answer is Comic-Con, which will also be happening in San Diego this weekend.  Though I know next to nothing about this annual event, a bit of research informs me that tens of thousands of super passionate comic book fans and Hollywood big wigs will be taking part in the insanely huge and popular convention. Along with the hype, local prices have also skyrocketed.

Any loyal Tuesday Toss reader in the San Diego area have an extra bedroom or a hotel connection that won’t run $600?

Seven On The Line

  1. Here’s a trivia question for ya: Who completed the most passes in 2019 while still finishing with a 100 percent completion rate? Answer below.
     
  2. Made this point on the Friday Forecast pod as well, but noteworthy to mention again that the four regular season division winners in 2019 are all different from a year ago. This year, it’s New York, Raleigh, San Diego, and Indianapolis. Last year, it was Toronto, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Madison. This type of transformation is unprecedented in the history of the modern AUDL (since 2013).
     
  3. What shall we make of the 2019 Indy AlleyCats? They won the regular season in the Midwest and will host a the division’s title game on July 27, but it’s also impossible to ignore that they are 8-4 with just a +6 goal-differential for the season. That margin is fifth-best in their six-team division, superior to only the embarrassing Mechanix, whose -103 is 60 goals worse than anyone else in the league. Inevitably, the AlleyCats’ season will be defined, fairly or unfairly, by their performance a week from Saturday against either Chicago or Pittsburgh, two teams that were +15 and +33 for the season, respectively. It is worth mentioning Indy’s tremendous success in close games, though, as the AlleyCats went 7-2 in games decided by three goals or less.
     
  4. A few weeks ago, Kurt Gibson was tentatively scheduled to be in the Stadium broadcast booth for Saturday’s Pittsburgh-Chicago contest. But as his injured shoulder continued to improve, he felt the pangs to play. Consequently, when gametime arrived, Gibson was cleated up and wearing his Wildfire jersey rather than his Stadium polo. It was cool to see him back out there, but let’s be honest, beyond his typical slight stature and distinctive long strides, he did not much look like himself on the field. The two-time AUDL champ played mostly D-line, did not layout, and only threw with his left hand, as his surgically repaired right shoulder was not quite ready to let ‘em rip. To his credit, several of his lefty throws looked smooth and natural, but overall his field sense and cardio were clearly not at the championship level that ultimate fans have come to know and expect. His presence was far from the reason Chicago got leveled on Saturday, but he also did not add much to the Wildfire cause. Along with the other absent talent returning to the field, Gibson’s ability to shake off the rust and also become a difference-maker this coming week could be a huge factor in determining whether the Wildfire can prolong their season or whether their very promising 2019 journey will end with three straight losses.
     
  5. One of the most intriguing unknowns league-wide heading into the playoffs is how the Flyers’ leadership will orchestrate its depth against Dallas on July 27, and if they’re fortunate, beyond then. Mostly, this is about the status of Jonathan Nethercutt, the 2017 AUDL MVP and 2018 All-AUDL member who saw action in just two games during the 2019 season due to a variety of life conflicts.

    It’s a pretty fascinating debate to either include him among the active 20 or to keep going without him, which admittedly has been a pretty successful path so far this year. Bizarrely, it’s hard to say if the past two postseason games against the Roughnecks are an argument for or against his inclusion this time around. In the last two South Division title games, Nethercutt has 15 assists, 11 hockey assists, six goals, and 104 completions. But he also has 11 turnovers in those two games, handling the bulk of the distributing responsibility and burden. If he does return, his role would certainly not be as heavy as the past couple years, but the history suggests that if he does play, Raleigh’s season could again come down to the disc in his hands in a critical moment. I honestly don’t know what the Flyers are going to do, though my hunch is that we will see Nethercutt on the field at some point in the playoffs. I think that’s the right call. But I’m not certain.
     
  6. Including Philadelphia’s double overtime victory on Sunday in Montreal, the AUDL witnessed 12 overtime games in the 2019 regular season, two more than last year despite the substantial dip in the number of overall games on the schedule. This year, 9.5 percent of the 126-game slate went to OT, while only 6.2 percent of the 161-game ledger in 2018 extended beyond the final buzzer of regulation. Furthermore, after just two double overtime games a season ago, the 2019 campaign gave us six, including four in the last five weeks. Interestingly, each of the past four double overtime games have been won by the visiting team, Seattle at San Jose, New York at Raleigh, Pittsburgh at Detroit, and Philadelphia at Montreal. Overall, the road team went 7-5 in overtime in 2019.
     
  7. On the statistical front, kudos to Montreal’s Quentin Bonnaud, who caught 10 more goals on Sunday to finish with 83 on the year, 24-more than the next highest total in the league. Bonnaud also paced the circuit in plus/minus at +101, and set a new single-season goals per game high (6.9 goals per game), besting Mischa Freystaetter's 2016 record of 6.8. Chicago’s Pawel Janas led the league in assists for the second straight year, while Minnesota’s Jimmy Kittlesen finished atop the AUDL block charts for the first time in his career.
     

The Hammer

Alrighty then, let’s get to these playoffs.

We’ve got four games this weekend: Chicago at Pittsburgh, DC vs. Toronto (in New York), and Los Angeles at San Diego all on Saturday night, and the Breeze/Rush survivor’s at New York on Sunday.

By next week, we will know half of the Championship Weekend field, with the other half to be determined in Raleigh and Indianapolis on July 27. 

Stadium will broadcast the West Division final, the South Division final, and all three games at Championship Weekend. The other five playoff games can be seen on audl.tv.

Thanks for reading, caring, and watching. 

Talk to you from San Diego. 


The Tuesday Toss is published weekly on theAUDL.com during the season. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler